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· 1 ·· INTRODUCTION · Outline of an Investigation on Digital Objects Humans have always lived in a hybrid environment surrounded by artificial and natural objects. The artificial and the natural are not two separate realms, nor are artificial objects simply instruments with which to conquer the natural; instead, they constitute a dynamic system that conditions human experience and existence. And precisely because the artificial is constantly developing toward greater concretization, it demands constant reflection on its singular historical condition. The milieu in which we live has also changed. Videotapes have been replaced by YouTube videos, and dinner invitations are no longer issued through letters, less and less by telephone calls and e-mails, but more often by Facebook event invitations. These objects are basically data, sharable and controllable; they can be made visible or invisible through the configuration of the system. This book proposes to conduct an investigation of these digital objects. The reader may already have different ideas of what a digital object is, for example, a bug, a virus, a hardware component, a gadget, a piece of code, a bunch of binary numbers. To allow for a more focused investigation, I will limit the scope of this book to data. By digital objects , I mean objects that take shape on a screen or hide in the back end of a computer program, composed of data and metadata regulated by structures or schemas. Metadata literally means data about data. Schemas are structures that give semantic and functional meaning to the metadata; in computation, they are also called ontologies—a word that has immediate associations with philosophy. The following Figure 1 shows a very simple digital object—a piece of contact information for Martin Heidegger—in which we are presented with metadata that describe the person Heidegger (as someone who knows Bertrand Russell), this metadata being schematized using a Web ontology called FOAF (Friend of a Friend). Digital objects are, of course, not only limited to contacts; in general, they constitute a new form of industrial object that pervades every aspect of our lives in this time of ubiquitous media—such as online videos, 2 INTRODUCTION images, text files, Facebook profiles, and invitations. If we look at the Facebook Graph API, which describes how the Facebook data network is formed,1 we should not be surprised to find that all the elements are defined by the Facebook engineers as objects (Figure 2). They exist both on the screen, where we can interact with them, and in the back end, or inside the computer program. They are quite similar to objects used in object-oriented programming, except that they don’t have computational functions. Our inquiry will focus mainly on the general concept of the digital object and the representation and categorization of digital objects, and less on object-oriented programming, which would deserve another book of its own. Despite their popularity, the nature of digital objects is still to be clarified. This assertion is to be understood in two ways. First, philosophical conceptualizations of the object, as developed, for instance, from Aristotle to late modern philosophy, passing by thinkers such as Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Husserl, have mainly been concerned with questions of the substance and appearance of things, have largely been limited to the understanding of natural objects and have thus been unable to address the question of digital objects. When these conceptual schemas are applied to the understanding of a technical object, such as a machine, they simply treat it as though it were a natural object, such as a tree in the garden. Second, within computer science, a strong notion of the object is Figure 1. An example of the expression of personal information and friendship in FOAF. Martin Heidegger Martin Heidegger 71b88e951cb5f07518d69e5bb49a45100fbc3ca5 Bertrand Russell 241021fb0e6289f92815fc210f9e9137262c252e INTRODUCTION 3 still lacking, because its use is mostly concerned with the production of data and the harvesting of correlations and patterns (especially in the case of Big Data). Engineering falls short in the sense that it limits its understanding of digital objects to a set of structures for representation (in the sense that form is understood in hylomorphistic thinking), that is, to practical applications. By the same token, reflections on digital media in recent decades have focused on the digital and on information, and increasingly on data, while the notion of the digital object is still to be elucidated. In short, digital objects are conceived as pragmatic engineering questions or as phenomena of the digital, whereas their thinghood and their existential status...


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